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Patriot Ledger

Quincy bus drivers say rides aren't safe

By Peter Blandino, The Patriot Ledger,

26 days ago

QUINCY − Simmering frustrations on the part of school bus drivers have boiled over in recent weeks, leading to public demonstrations in Quincy Center.

Drivers say the buses are overcrowded and insufficiently supervised due to shortages of drivers and monitors. Conditions, they say, put children at risk of injury.

While the demonstrations take place, school administrators and representatives of Teamsters Local 122 have been negotiating a new contract. Union Secretary/Treasurer John Murphy said drivers and monitors have been working on an expired contract since July 2022.

Union members have ratified a new contract that includes pay raises, but Murphy said the protests aren't directly related to the contract negotiations.

Though he said uncompetitive pay does make it harder to attract drivers and monitors to Quincy, driver frustration peaked because of safety concerns arising from a policy change having to do with how children are assigned seats on the bus.

"We got to let the parents know this is a pretty serious issue," Murphy said.

Murphy said the overcrowding became serious during the initial shock of the pandemic. Seven full-time bus drivers retired over the summer of 2020 due to health concerns. They have not been replaced, he said.

Murphy said Quincy Public Schools, with an enrollment of 9,649 students, employs 25 route drivers and five monitors. Attempts to confirm the number of drivers and monitors with Quincy Public Schools were unsuccessful.

Quincy drivers raise alarm on overcrowded buses, lack of communication and safety concerns

Marie McDonough, a 17-year veteran school bus driver in Quincy, said her regular morning route to Lincoln-Hancock Elementary School and South West Middle School has 68 children on the bus, three fewer than the maximum allowed.

“That’s a lot of kids to have by myself,” she said.

McDonough, who says she does not have a monitor to manage behavior, said she struggles to maintain a safe environment.

“My job is to drive,” she said. “If I take my eyes off the road, then we’re in trouble. I can’t do both.”

McDonough said administrators responded by implementing a "buddy system" without first consulting the drivers. Under the system, third and fourth graders are seated with younger students to model appropriate behavior.

McDonough said that as older students are dropped off, younger students are left alone at the back of the bus, where they are harder to monitor. It also creates a situation where younger students, who are unable to open the rear emergency door, are seated in back, McDonough said.

She said if management had consulted the drivers, they could have come up with a better plan and avoided some of the “bitterness” that the policy created.

"I don’t want it like that, but I was told I have to do it," she said. "I wish we were a little more paid attention to. I don’t think management has ever taken a ride on the school bus.”

Michael Draicchio, director of safety, security and transportation for Quincy Public Schools, said in an email that the buddy system helps younger students feel more comfortable while giving older students a leadership role.

“(The policy) is not designed to replace monitors,” Draicchio wrote.

He said the policy has been in effect in Quincy for many years “with positive results," and that he doesn't understand why drivers are complaining about it now.

Uncompetitive pay, unsettled contract negotiations, unhappy drivers

Without a pay increase since 2021, the wages for monitors and drivers have failed to keep up with surrounding districts, McDonough said, which has led to crowded buses with insufficient supervision.

Current pay is not a living wage for drivers or monitors, McDonough said. She said she has two female colleagues who rely on subsidized housing in Germantown because the pay is too low.

McDonough said it’s not just a matter of pay and working conditions that have motivated her to demonstrate publicly for the first time in her career. Rather, it comes down to respect.

"It hurts," she said. "We work hard. We try to do what’s right. We get the job done for the city.”

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Murphy said Quincy's wages are lower than in nearby municipalities on the South Shore, a situation he says contributes to the labor shortages.

A first-year driver with a 7D license, which is a state-issued certificate for new drivers that is valid for one year, makes $16.41 an hour. The pay increases as drivers obtain more experience and accreditations. A driver with five years of experience, a commercial driver's license and dispatcher training makes $24.10 an hour.

In Weymouth, by comparison, a new bus driver with a commercial driver's license makes $26.60 and a driver with five years of experience makes $28.84. Weymouth bus drivers will receive a 5.5% pay increase over the next two years.

Murphy said that in Quincy, unlike some other districts, route drivers are guaranteed 40½ hours of work every week. This stipulation, he said, can make gross pay in Quincy comparable to other districts, though on paper the wage rate is lower.

McDonough said Quincy bus monitors make about $15 per hour, a rate she said is uncompetitive.

According to a memorandum of agreement provided to The Patriot Ledger by Teamsters Local 122 on Thursday, bus monitors would receive a 3% raise on top of a 22-cent increase to base salary for fiscal 2024 and another 3% raise in fiscal 2025.

The new agreement also would eliminate the lowest step on the salary schedule. First-year workers on this step made $14.87 in fiscal 2023.

The proposed new pay structure has two steps. Step 1 employees, who are new hires, would make $16.93 in fiscal 2024. Step 2 employees, who have already completed a one-year probationary period, would make $18.29.

In fiscal 2025, new hires would make $17.44 and all other monitors would make $18.44.

The proposed contract needs the Quincy School Committee's approval.

Response from the school administration

Draicchio noted that shortages of bus drivers and monitors have challenged school districts across Massachusetts and the country, a point that Murphy also emphasized.

“This can pose scheduling challenges on a good day when we have all of our staff present,” Draicchio wrote in an email to The Patriot Ledger. “On days when bus drivers or bus monitors call in sick or otherwise cannot come to work, this increases the challenge significantly.

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"Nevertheless, the district ensures that it is staying within the occupancy limit capacities of the school buses," Draicchio wrote.

To cope, Quincy Public Schools is paying paraprofessionals to cover for bus monitors who call in sick. Draicchio said that in some instances, administrators have filled in as monitors. McDonough said this leads to a situation in which the monitors make more than the drivers because paraprofessionals receive higher pay than drivers.

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Like Murphy and McDonough, Draicchio said he hopes the contract negotiations for drivers and monitors will settle soon “so that we will be able to attract more qualified candidates for these positions.”

School Superintendent Kevin Mulvey said he couldn’t discuss the matter while contract negotiations are pending.

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This article originally appeared on The Patriot Ledger: Quincy bus drivers say rides aren't safe

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